Lady Chatterley's Lover: is BBC version sugar-coated?

Producers claim new adaptation of DH Lawrence novel 'almost porn', but there's no swearing or nudity

Lady Chatterley's Lover
(Image credit: BBC)

BBC One's new adaptation of DH Lawrence's classic tale of passion and adultery, Lady Chatterley's Lover, is being called the 'new Poldark' by some commentators, but others have accused it of being "sugar-coated" and "politically correct".

The latest screen version of Lawrence's 1928 novel about an aristocratic woman's affair with a gamekeeper stars The Borgias' Holliday Grainger as Lady Chatterley, Happy Valley's James Norton as her husband, Clifford, and Game Of Thrones' Richard Madden as her lover, Oliver Mellors.

The story has been adapted for the BBC by Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and follows Lady Constance Chatterley, who is shunned by her wheelchair-bound, war veteran husband, and seeks comfort in the arms of her brooding lower-class gamekeeper, thus risking scandal and social ostracism.

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It's already being branded as "the new Poldark", says the Daily Mirror, "thanks to images of a bare-chested Madden in the trailer". The forbidden love, which crosses the class gulf, is "sure to set pulses racing", the newspaper adds, and its sex scenes are already sparking commentary.

The original 1928 novel was censored in Britain for over 30 years for its obscene language and graphic sex scenes, and Penguin Books was tried under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 for publishing the full version with its frequent use of the word "f***". Penguin Books was cleared and Lady Chatterley's Lover enjoyed an infamy which would seem extreme in today's more permissive culture.

But just how explicit this TV adaptation will be has become subject to debate. The show's producer, Serena Cullen, told The Sun that the 90-minute drama "borders on porn". Cullen said that if the scenes had been any raunchier they would have had to air it on X-rated channels, adding "I’m not sure what more we could have shown unless it was for porn."

But others say it is a fairly tame affair, especially given that Mercurio has cut out Lawrence's four-letter words, because, he says, they no longer have the impact they did in Lawrence's time.

In The Guardian Kathryn Hughes says "Mellors is positively bashful when it comes to four-letter words". There's decorous “bottom” instead of “arse”, she notes, and just one “cock” right at the end. But Hughes praises the new version overall as "wonderfully subtle" and "morally complex".

Something else missing from this new version is nudity, reports the Daily Telegraph, because Mercurio claims that too much television nudity is "sexist and exploitative". Most of the sex is candlelit, and in bed, notes the Telegraph, and Lady Chatterly is at the centre of one of the "most surprising" scenes, which Mercurio says is "a bit of atonement for Lawrence’s perceived misogynistic attitude to certain sex acts"

But John Worthen in The Sunday Times argues that the BBC is making a "terrible mistake" by cutting out the "naughty bits". Rescuing Lawrence from accusations of misogyny is long overdue, says Worthen, but bowdlerising Lady Chatterley misses the point.

Lawrence is controversial because he explores the sexual and emotional webs that men and women weave around each other, says Worthen, adding that the BBC's sugar-coating for political correctness and television etiquette is "a small act of cultural vandalism". He wonders whether we will have to look to Hollywood for a more accurate version, one with "lashings of sex" and a "genuinely shocking version of a failing marriage".

Lady Chatterley's Lover airs on BBC One on Sunday September 6 at 9pm

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